'Breakdown In Bennington': Meet Kiah Morris
Note: Some of this reporting is disturbing. This story contains racist language.
If there’s a face of the racial justice movement in Vermont today, it probably belongs to Kiah Morris.
Morris was the only African American woman serving in the Vermont House of Representatives until she made international news in the fall of 2018, when she resigned over racist threats made to her family.
But her path to Bennington and the Statehouse was never easy.
In the second of five stories, VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld has more on Kiah Morris and what led her to run for office. We recommend listening to the audio story above, but we’ve also provided a transcript below.
Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Peter Hirschfeld: It’s mid-January of 2019. And Kiah Morris is standing on the steps of the Vermont Statehouse, in front of a crowd that’s gathered for the Women’s March. Morris had resigned from office four months earlier.
Kiah Morris: “As a woman, and especially as a woman of color, my courage must work toward the eradication of issues of race, gender inequality, class inequality and the promotion of our human and civil rights.”
Peter Hirschfeld: Several years later, Morris is still involved in the state’s racial justice movement. She serves as director of the Vermont Coalition on Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools.
And there’s a reason Morris has figured so significantly in the politics of race in this state: When the voters of Bennington elected her to the House of Representatives in 2014, she became only the second African American female lawmaker in the chamber’s history. The first was Louvenia Bright, in 1989.
But it turns out that Morris has been at the intersection of policy and politics since she was a little girl, growing up in Chicago in the 1980s.
Morris’ childhood fell during a historically significant chapter in the city’s civil rights movement. Her family was included in a documentary a few years ago by the New York Times.
New York Times documentary narrator: Many black residents were concentrated in the worst neighborhoods, with the poorest in vast government housing projects.
New York Times documentary archive tape: The world of the people who live here bears very little resemblance to the American Dream.
New York Times documentary narrator: Valencia Morris and her three daughters would eventually live in one of them.
Valencia Morris: There was garbage, junk on the outside of the buildings. Even in kindergarten, first grade, my daughters would get beat up on their way home from school.
Peter Hirschfeld: Valencia Morris is Kiah Morris’ mother. And the documentary is about a first-of-its-kind voucher program that tried to integrate some of Chicago’s poor inner city families into middle-class white suburbs.
In the late 1970s, Valencia Morris was a single mom to three young girls. She succeeded in getting one of those vouchers, and quickly moved her daughters into a mostly white community in the suburbs.
New York Times documentary narrator: But life as one of the town’s only black families wasn’t always easy.
Valencia Morris: I would go out in the morning to get in my car and there would be rotten eggs thrown on the windshield and all over the car. The girls would tell me that people would call them names. They would call them n-----, baboon.
Peter Hirschfeld: Kiah Morris is also interviewed in the documentary. And she says that childhood experience was fraught, but also formative.
Kiah Morris: “I’m proud and honored to be the first person of color ever to come out of Bennington County. I’m the first black woman to be elected into the House in 25 years. If we were not given this opportunity, would I be here today? There’s someone that deserves that chance to have the energy to do the hard work that it takes to get ahead. And you can’t do that when you’re under the weight and the oppression of poverty. You just cannot.”
Peter Hirschfeld: After graduating from high school, Morris attended the University of Illinois. Then she left home, first to live in Washington, D.C., and then to Seattle, where she worked in the arts community.
To this day, Morris is still a spoken word performer. She recently composed a poem after visiting female asylum seekers in Honduras and El Salvador, with the international aid organization OxFam.
After living in Seattle, Morris moved back to Chicago, and finished her college degree. She ended up getting what she says was a great job with an online travel company. Until the recession hit, and she lost her job in a round of company layoffs.
Kiah Morris: “And so I started just traveling and looking around, and had some friends out this way. Came out to visit and fell in love.”
Peter Hirschfeld: Fell in love with Bennington, which reminded her of the bucolic wilderness she’d grown fond of in Seattle.
Morris, who lives in Bennington with her husband, James Lawton, and their young son, wasn’t too put off by the lack of diversity in her new hometown.
Kiah Morris: “I know what it’s like to be a person of color in a place where you feel like you’re one of the only ones.”
Peter Hirschfeld: But she says it took some getting used to.
Kiah Morris: “When I first moved here I was kind of struck by how – I wasn’t confused by it – but I remember being struck by how few persons of color that I actually saw on the streets or in town. I remember walking into a café and having this distinct moment when there were two black gentlemen at different tables and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s like a convention. We’re all getting together.’”
Peter Hirschfeld: Over time, Morris says she began to sense that African Americans were having trouble weaving themselves into the social fabric of Bennington. Herself included.
In 2013, she attended a leadership program in Washington, D.C.. Morris says a mentor at the program told her she looked sullen and despondent when she talked about her professional life.
When she talked about her volunteer work in the community though:
Kiah Morris: “’There’s a difference. You change, you know? You stand taller. There’s a palatable excitement and passion. Have you ever considered running for office?’”
Peter Hirschfeld: Morris had not. But, the idea stuck.
Kiah Morris: “My name is Kiah Morris, and I’m running for state representative in District 2-2. And I want to thank you for being part of this conversation.”
Peter Hirschfeld: That’s Morris in a campaign video in 2014, during her first run for the Legislature.
Kiah Morris: “As a wife, a working mother, and an aunt, I understand fully the challenges the average American family in Bennington faces.”
Peter Hirschfeld: Morris, who was 37 at the time, is wearing a purple blouse and a white pearl necklace. She smiles broadly into the camera. And hits the kinds of notes you’d expect from any local candidate seeking votes in a working class town like Bennington.
Kiah Morris: “I’m running because I love our community. I love the strength of spirit of our residents. I love the generosity of our community members. And I love our rich history.”
Peter Hirschfeld: Morris got less than 30% of the vote. But, it was enough to win her one of the district’s two seats in the House of Representatives.
Donald Campbell: “I think this community was pretty excited to have her as our representative, so most people I know anyway were excited to vote for her.”
Peter Hirschfeld: That’s Donald Campbell, who now serves as chairman of the Bennington Select Board.
Peter Hirschfeld: Why do you think folks were excited to vote for her?
Donald Campbell: I don’t know – she had an upbeat attitude. She was working on some kind of edgy stuff. She was thinking about … some of the stuff that’s important to me. Inclusivity, and trying to figure out how we can make sure everybody feels welcome.
Peter Hirschfeld: Soon after winning that first race for the Vermont House though, Morris’ high profile would bring her into the view of fellow Bennington resident Max Misch. And Misch quickly decided he didn’t like the fact that a black woman represented this mostly white community.
This is the second of five stories in VPR and VTDigger’s weeklong series looking back at Kiah Morris’ resignation from the Vermont House of Representatives. Find all the stories on our Breakdown In Bennington page.